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Telling the story of international aid

My novel explores an aid worker's dilemmas.

Aid workers in South Sudan
Aid workers in South Sudan (Photograph: Getty Images)

When we discuss foreign aid policy, we tend to talk about money. Everyone knows that New Labour boosted British expenditure on overseas aid, and that the coalition government is committed to increasing the sums even further, in particular by spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on international development from 2013. In fact, this one pledge rather dominates the whole debate.

Arguably, focusing on the cost and quantity of aid distracts attention from the more important, though much trickier, assessment of its quality and impact. The distance between Whitehall and the slums of the developing world could hardly be bigger, and it is hard to be confident that money allocated in London will actually bring about more education or better housing in Karachi, Manila or Nairobi. On the contrary, making things happen on the ground is an almost unimaginably complex challenge, and in the large, fascinating literature on development policy, some of the most compelling chapters concern precisely this gap between good intentions and carefully laid plans on the one hand, and unintended, occasionally catastrophic results on the other.

This is where my own interest in the world of foreign aid and NGOs started to take hold. My novel Ten Weeks in Africa tells the story of an Englishman, Ed Caine, who goes out to east Africa with his family to run a slum development project for a British NGO. The characters’ experiences are based on numerous accounts of such programmes. But as a novelist, I wasn’t coming to this literature on aid principally in search of policy solutions. I wanted to know how things worked out in practice, from a personal perspective, for those who had taken up the challenge of implementing development projects in poor, politically unstable states – and what happened to their colleagues, and the intended beneficiaries. 

I have not worked in overseas aid, and I am certainly no expert. I found the stories of men and women who spent years trying to bring about improvements in the lives of the world’s poorest people, moving and often humbling. But it was also remarkably discouraging. Again and again in these accounts, high hopes and good intentions are defeated by a combination of endemic corruption and the brute forces of nature. And the fact that such problems are essentially familiar to us and ought to be foreseeable, does not seem to make them any easier to deal with in practice, nor is it generally reflected in the way aid is discussed in the media.

Through Ed’s experiences, I wanted to explore the situation of an NGO manager who finds he is responsible for a project that, in the end, just cannot be made to work. To such an "international", speaking the local languages poorly, if at all, even understanding the motives of his colleagues and advisers is hard; and, especially where money and power are concerned, every action triggers negative consequences.

Even impeccably conceived projects can cause harm in practice. Drilling a well will benefit one village, but if the new boreholes cause the water-table to drop, the area of drought in the surrounding country will expand. Providing starving people with emergency supplies is a moral duty. But what if supplies are stolen by militias, enabling them to finance their war and so prolong the famine?

Such dilemmas are not unusual, as the literature on aid makes abundantly clear, and there is seldom an easy solution. I certainly do not provide answers in Ten Weeks in Africa. What my novel does offer, I hope, is an opening into a world which is both personal and realistically complex. Illuminating the dignity and interior life of human agents is one of the things good fiction can do well; and if that in itself does not solve the world’s problems, it can at least remind us of the measure by which all hoped-for solutions must ultimately be judged.

JM Shaw’s novel "Ten Weeks in Africa" is published by Sceptre (£17.99)